The Summit Institute: Providing a new start

The Summit Institute gives foster-care children and those suffering from mental health issues a fair shot at life.

Orian Levy hugs his foster parents, Avi and Dvora Elisha  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Orian Levy hugs his foster parents, Avi and Dvora Elisha
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In a working-class neighborhood in southern Jerusalem, a single mother of three was working paycheck-to-paycheck struggling to put food on the table for Orian – the one remaining child in the home. Additionally, the home was not a stable one, causing his two older siblings to be sent to boarding school to help alleviate the family’s pressures after her divorce from the children’s father. But that assistance was not enough.
“It was a pretty rough neighborhood back then,” Orian Levy, now 22, says of his childhood home.
The lack of stability caused a myriad of issues in the house as well. Seeing few ways out of this insurmountable emotional and financial hole and lack of options for her little boy, she made the most difficult decision of her life – she sent five-year-old Orian to live with a foster family.
However, Avi and Dvora Elisha weren’t just any foster family. Thanks to the coordination of The Summit Institute, the Elishas provided what is considered an anomaly in the foster parent world: A way for the child to be raised by both his foster parents and biological mother.
“It was like a partnership,” Orian says of the arrangement. “My foster parents were in the front making critical decisions, but my biological mother was involved every step of the way. My mom made it clear she didn’t send me away because she didn’t love me or want me. On the contrary, she sent me away because she wanted me to have a more stable upbringing.” “At the Summit Institute, a child’s life consists of both his biological and foster parents,” explains Orit Amiel, the organization’s Director of Foster Care Services.
The organization began in 1973 by rehabilitating young adults with mental illness so they can achieve a normative life and then, in 2003, began placing children in loving foster care homes as well. But they don’t do it alone, the Summit Institute also works closely with the Welfare Ministry in order to ensure the well-being of all pupils in their care.
These segments of the population – neglected children and those with mental illnesses – are often ignored, their needs and wants marginalized. However, The Summit Institute has thus far given thousands of people not only a voice, but the chance to have a normative life.
Providing homes for children coming from problematic backgrounds and adults suffering from various mental illnesses has always been an uphill battle, but the outbreak of COVID-19 has exacerbated their challenges.
A recent report by ELEM-Youth in Distress revealed that depression and anxiety, domestic violence, substance abuse, loneliness and eating disorders increased by two-fold since last year.
At The Summit Institute, they are quietly bracing for the impact of receiving these children and young adults who need help. In terms of prospective foster children, Amiel is anticipating many more pupils who will turn to them and whose abuse thus far has not yet been discovered. Since resources are already scarce, she knows they will have their work cut out for them.
“No child can learn without a computer, for example, so I’m always trying to find a computer here, a computer there to help them learn,” Amiel says.
Moreover, foster-care children often have a history of abandonment and abuse that requires professional emotional support. Up until three weeks ago, that intervention from their team of social workers and psychologists has been relegated to Zoom and conducted on an intermittent basis – something that has certainly disrupted the healthcare that these children and their parents rely on. As a result, some children have displayed boundary pushing behavior or have regressed due to the acute stress felt during these trying times.
But even with a pandemic, there is a silver lining.
“Since COVID, the floodgates of foster parents saying they are willing to open up their homes has increased,” Amiel says. “People are more at home, they have hit the pause button to evaluate what’s really important to them and they hear about at-risk children and they want to help. It’s interesting to see what’s happening in society, while we have a divided and angry populace we also have a growing amount of people showing compassion and empathy.” Amiel notes that the organization works closely with the Welfare Ministry to shatter the stigma around foster care and optimize the process so children can have a healthy family-life.
THE ELISHA family is the epitome of a compassionate family in action. They welcomed Orian Levy back into their home despite the behavioral issues he developed once he hit puberty.
“Summit didn’t just say ‘Let’s find this kid a foster family.’ They brought in social workers who are the most appropriate fit for both the child and his biological parents. They check the situation thoroughly and there’s a trial period as well where things can get changed up if the arrangement is not working out,” Levy says.
Summit adheres to strict guidelines when searching for a foster family – specifically parents must be under 55 years old, have no criminal background, be economically solvent and be able to provide a stable home life for a child.
That is because the ultimate goal of Summit’s foster care program, Executive Director Yoni Bogot explains, is reuniting a child with his biological parents.
In addition to its robust team of professionals who receive consistent training, Summit works with the Jerusalem Municipality at its Mahut Center, which educates and treats both adolescence and their parents and provides them with counseling so they can work out their issues together.
Which is why Orian is a blended family success story. He is in close contact with his biological mother and his two siblings, as well as his four foster siblings. Humbled by the assistance he received as a youth, Orian is determined to give back. As a soldier in the IDF, he is now a counselor to 175 kids and coordinates their non-academic activities and before serving as a parachuter in the IDF, he did a year of community service where he served as a mentor to at-risk youth.
“Summit makes miracles happen. They help children and young adults in impossible situations. We’re given structure, a framework and a loving family. They found a way to combine foster and biological families which is so needed. Sometimes, parents encounter major stumbling blocks when raising children and I’m so grateful that there’s an organization we can turn to,” he says.
IN THE realm of mental health, Yael, too, is another example of a young adult whose life was transformed because of the organization. After being hospitalized for a mental breakdown due to severe depression, Yael (who asked to not have her last name revealed) needed direction in life.
“I went into a very deep depression that got me fired. They fired me and just told me to go. I couldn’t hold down a job; I’d fall asleep and I couldn’t get out of bed,” she confessed. “I went to Summit for rehabilitation and I was told that it was the best place for me to try and heal. We realized that I could not return to the open market in terms of work.” “We help those aged 18-40 with mental health issues – it could be schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, PTSD, depression, eating disorders,” Bogot added. “We treat and rehabilitate these people who often had a breakdown and were hospitalized. When they are discharged, they need a safe place to reacclimate to society.” As such, Summit offers them three critical services to get their life back on track: housing, rehabilitative vocational support so they can learn transferable skills and therapy. The goal is for them to be able to hit the reset button and achieve independence when they re-enter society.
So dedicated is Summit to achieving this mission that they even give them a deadline: Each patient has three years to develop coping mechanisms for their mental health issues so they can be productive members of society.
For Yael, the regimen of work, therapy and responsibility has seemed to work. After spending 18 months in Summit’s vocational support factory Yetzir Kapaim, Yael recently left the organization to strike out on her own. Now, she works as a counselor for another rehabilitative organization and hopes one day to open a daycare facility.
Although Yael’s success story may not seem dramatic, turning one’s life around while they contend with a debilitating mental illness is a major challenge.
“Anybody who was able to get his life back on track is a success story in my book,” Bogot says. “People with mental health issues come to us without ever successfully completing one day of work and then they’re able to hold down a job – this is huge.
“It doesn’t sound bombastic or glamorous, but this is a huge success. We extend a helping hand so they can have a normative life and so they can have self-awareness regarding their limitations. After they spend time with us, they know how to recognize that they need help and they know how to ask for it.”